I recently learned of a situation involving homeless people that raised some interesting questions. A certain church provides services to homeless people in its community. These services include free meals, a second-hand closet from which clothing can be obtained at no charge, showers on Saturdays, and rides to the local employment office. The church recently got a new pastor. As part of familiarizing himself with his duties, the new pastor began observing the homeless men who come to his church for meals, clothes, and Saturday showers.

Over time he began to notice a pattern. The same men showed up for their free food, clothing, and showers repeatedly, but these men never seemed to take advantage of the free rides to the local employment office provided by the church. Further, the pastor began to notice the same men standing at various heavily-trafficked street corners around town displaying signs containing such messages as “Homeless—Please Help.” He also noticed several of the men who frequented his church’s homeless center coming out of liquor stores at the end of the day carrying bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Another interesting thing he noticed was that several of his church’s homeless regulars carried cell phones. Disturbed by what he was seeing, the pastor decided to talk with some of these homeless men. What he learned caused him to seriously question his church’s approach to providing assistance for the homeless.

Many of the homeless men the pastor talked to were open and straight-forward in explaining that the life they were leading was, for reasons of their own, the life they chose to live. In short, they weren’t trying to get off the streets. They were actually homeless by choice. This is why they refused the free rides offered by the church to the local employment office. Life for them consisted of working the street corners for what they called donations during the day, sleeping at Waterfront Mission or Salvation Army facilities at night, and getting food and clothing from the pastor’s church. Add in a shower once a week at the church and they were perfectly content. Several of the men who came to the church were living the life of the homeless as a way to maintain their anonymity. Put simply they did not want to be part of the system because anyone in the system can be found and, for reasons of their own, they did not want to be found. Some were running from the law, some from wives to whom they owed alimony, and some from life in general.

The pastor in this situation came to the conclusion that his church’s approach to helping the homeless needed to be reconsidered. The church, in the pastor’s eyes, was just enabling bad decisions and irresponsibility. Further, by enabling bad decisions the church was contributing to perpetuating the homeless problem in its community rather than helping solve it. It is one thing for a man to choose to be homeless, but it is quite another for him to exploit the emotions of good people who think they are helping the homeless get back on their feet or to take advantage of churches that are trying to be good Samaritans.

What really concerned this pastor was that there are homeless people who come to his church who really do need help and who are sincerely trying to put their lives back together. Some of these people are women—mothers with small children. The pastor wants to help people in this category—especially the mothers. But he sees limited resources being drained away by homeless men who are too proud to work but not too proud to beg, men who are gaming the charity system to support a lifestyle they have chosen to live.

This young pastor found himself in a real quandary. His church had provided services for the homeless for more than 30 years, but was it really helping them? Here are some of the conundrums the pastor was struggling with:

  • Is it right to give free meals, clothing, and showers to homeless men who have no desire to build a different kind of life for themselves?
  • By continuing to “help” homeless men who do not intend to change their lives do we encourage an entitlement mentality?
  • Would it be better to share the limited resources available to the church with homeless people who are trying to re-build their lives?

The questions the pastor was struggling with apply more broadly than to just his church. They apply to all of us. When we toss a few coins to a homeless man at a busy street corner, are we really helping him or are we just enabling irresponsible behavior? If we want to be charitable toward homeless people, should we try to distinguish between those who really want help and those who are just playing on our emotions? Is homelessness for some just another version of the entitlement lifestyle? Are people who game charity programs any different than those who game government programs? I look forward to receiving feedback from readers, and will pass it along to this pastor.